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Koeberg plot, FBI rot

What if we gave you a mission? Go undercover for us at your workplace, wait for the ideal moment to plant a bomb, set the timer for when no one will be at the office, sit through some nervous farewell drinks in the hope that your fuses hold up, and then escape on your bicycle into Swaziland. This is precisely what was asked of Rodney Wilkinson.

We had a cat-on-the-keyboard moment when we uncovered this incredible story by chance during our perusal of old Koeberg content — and, of course, it caught our eye for being a little different from the standard fare of mismanagement reporting related to the tag.

Retold by the late David Beresford, the article, published in 1995, details Wilkinson’s secret mission to plant four limpet mines on the two reactor heads at the power station,as well as at other strategic points, in 1982. The French-built nuclear installation, it was suspected, would be used to produce plutonium for the construction of atomic bombs for the apartheid government.

How Wilkinson found himself in the situation is almost as fascinating as the event itself. Having stolen a set of plans to the plant, he had travelled to Zimbabwe to tip off the ANC about the opportunity. After a thorough vetting process, the party in exile said “Hey, you should just do it.” And so began a four-year process of amazing civilian action against a criminal regime.

Rewind a decade earlier and take a trip to another unethical authority. On 8 March 1971, the “Fight of the Century” between Joe Fraiser and Muhammed Ali, both of whom were undefeated, had captured the world’s attention. Or at least that’s what a group calling itself the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, was banking on. The activists recognised the FBI was actively spying on anti-war and civil-rights activists and sowing dissent within their ranks. They just had to prove it.

Taking their cue from war resisters who broke into draft boards and destroyed documents to impede the US recruitment effort for the Vietnam war, the group came up with an audacious plan: Why not break into an FBI office?

The eight made off with a tranche of documents that later exposed the bureau’s now-infamous domestic Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro), which, under the leadership of FBI director J Edgar Hoover, conducted widespread surveillance of American citizens and mostly left-wing political groups and activists, including civil-rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

It took two years for a reporter to figure out what the acronym meant. Among the programme’s tactics were: “[P]lans to enhance “paranoia” among “New Left” groups by instilling fears that “there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” 

Another instructed agents in the Philadelphia area to monitor the “clientele” of “Afro-American-type bookstores” and recruit informants among the “the Negro militant movement”.

The Citizens Commission sent copies of these documents detailing a series of covert, and often illegal, activity to a senator, a congressman and three newspapers. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both alerted the FBI and deferred their publication. The NYT helpfully mailed the documents. Only Betty Medsger of the Washington Post, under the editorship of Ben Bradlee, decided to publish.

The disclosure of the FBI’s domestic spying programme enraged Hoover, who at one point had a team of about 200 investigating the burglary. The revelations stirred public outrage, leading to Cointelpro’s end in 1972, as well as significant reforms in how the FBI operates.

The mystery of who broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania would only be solved in 2014, when five of the participants were advised that the statute of limitations had passed, and their identities revealed. Criminal masterminds? Spies? Nope, ordinary citizens.

The eight anti-war activists who broke into the FBI building did so at great personal risk. By breaking into the building, the activists risked lengthy prison sentences, something whistleblowers and journalists who challenge the state still find themselves risking today. Though it’s funny now, Wilkinson’s story could have ended very differently had he been captured. The moral of these stories is no one is too small or insignificant to enact meaningful change. 

Kiri Rupiah & Luke Feltham write The Ampersand newsletter for subscribers. Sign up for the best local and international journalism handpicked and in your inbox every weekday.

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.
Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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